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India Diaries

As a Slovak-born Canadian living in Vancouver, I have had the opportunity to experience several cultures in my life so far. Truth be told, I don’t have vivid memories of experiencing a “culture shock” when I first came to Canada. So when my plan to visit India came to materialize earlier this year, I felt excited (and maybe just a little nervous :) to truly experience a new culture! I knew it must be just a little bit different than going to “Little India” on Main and 49th in Vancouver...but I didn’t know how.

Arrival

Arriving in India for the first time ever. Though I’m staying with friends of the family, I’m feeling quite nervous. I got through customs without a glitch and my luggage is one of the first out so... not having a crowd to follow to the next place, I’m fiddling with my customs form and passport until someone else is walking out and then I make my way out too. People are waiting for arriving passengers and I absolutely hate that feeling when I walk out and not know where to find the people waiting for me. I have only ever met Diana but she is coming with her husband Fritz so I’m not sure who to look for. I walk with intent, and ward off men who approach me asking if I need a taxi to my destination. I tell them I have some friends picking me up (while desperately hoping that my friends appear) I spot Diana & what must be Fritz and another guy.

A big sigh of relief – they’re here. Aaron is one of their friends who ends up driving us home. Driving here is on the opposite side of the road. The ride takes about 40 minutes. Before coming I was warned about cars beeping their horns but it’s truly hard to imagine until I hear & experience it firsthand. Beeping just for the reason of “telling” someone that you are passing on their left or right, or beeping cause you want to switch lanes, or cause you’re approaching an intersection, or cause someone is in your way. But no one here gets agitated by it - it seems to be one of those culturally acceptable communication tools.

We arrive at the house. Fritz and Diana show me to my room just behind their house. The room is part of another building just behind their house. This building houses some other people who live in this community – but no one is awake, it’s 2am. There are outside stairs and then there are doors to the individual rooms/suites. My room’s on the 2nd floor. Wow, I’m really appreciative of the space.


The view as I walk past the main house towards my (yellow) building.


Day 1

Jet lag can be a wonderful thing. We’re 13.5 hours ahead of Vancouver time but I wake up quite rested. It’s Sunday. I go downstairs to the house for a quick breakfast, meet one of Diana and Fritz’s daughters and their maid Rani and then we go to church. The church is English speaking as is everyone around here, but I’m all of sudden very aware that I am one of only two Caucasian people in the church. This little kid next to me keeps moving her arm close to mine and comparing our skin colors – she can’t stop staring at me!

When we come back, Diana shows me a store around the corner where I can buy water and fruit. I am advised not to drink the tap water, so I’ll be purchasing my bottled water here. The kid helping his relatives at the shop can’t be older than 10 and his math skills are amazing. Diana and him communicate in Hindi, he is very smiley and tells me in English how much I owe him for the water.


Young mathwhiz poses for camera at Adam's market where I buy my water.


Walking back to the house we stop at a coconut vendor...it’s really a pile of coconuts, with a young man standing under a sun umbrella. We buy two coconuts. The guy chops off the top and puts straws in and off we go sipping on the coconut milk. It’s very light and refreshing, not like the thick coconut milk that is canned in the stores at home.

 
The coconut is being prepared into a refreshing beverage and then I enjoy it the shade!


I spend the afternoon resting in my room and hanging out in the living room at the house. Rani is both the cook and the maid – she is cooking up some great tasting meals. I’m liking this!!! I’m a bit confused about who is who and can’t keep track of everyone who is coming in and out today. I know that the living arrangements here aren’t like back home. This is the Institute for World Evangelisation - ICPE mission – and the doors seem to be “open” at all times. Various people pop by throughout the day. They seem to live on the property or nearby but all seem to belong to the ICPE mission. The name of the India base where I’m staying is Jeevan Daan, (which in Hindi – India’s national language, means "Gift of Life".)

We also have other company coming for dinner today, but everyone seems to know everyone and I’m just a little stunned trying to figure it all out. None of the food is too spicy so far. They keep asking me if it’s too spicy but it really isn’t so I’m glad I can handle their normal cooking... so far.

Day 3

Ok so the bed is really nice and big but also REALLY firm! Hopefully a few more days and my back will be used to it. One way to deal with jetlag is to do some back stretches. I love my morning coffee...especially cause when I come downstairs Rani is already making it. I can’t believe I’m being served like this! Yes it’s Nescafe but surprisingly it’s really good...sort of like camping coffee is really good – not what you are used to but just perfect for where you are. Construction outside my window begins around 7am. I peek out to see what’s happening and I’m shocked by the scaffolding. It’s pieces of wood tied together to make the scaffolding frame. It doesn’t seem safe. Of course the building is being built of bricks which for us Vancouverites is unheard of!

 
The view of the construction outside my back window.


I talk to Diana a bit later about this and she tells me that often times it’s women who do some of the toughest work at these sites, passing the bricks to the men who are building it. And their kids are usually at the site as well, playing in the mud etc. until they are old enough to help. This is the story of many poor families, who, by the time their kids reach school age sometimes don’t want them to go to school cause they can be a source of income instead if they help out.

One of the missions that Diana and Fritz are working on is getting sponsors for these kids that would help finance their education. Her brother sponsors one child who is now a teenager and is lucky enough to attend school. This is the first time I see the immediate impact that sponsoring a child can have. I have to remember to ask how much money it costs to sponsor the education of a kid. My guess is that it’s not much by western standards.

Day 4

Today Diana & Fritz’s daughter Chiara takes me to a shopping district to show me around. We get around by hiring an “auto” aka a rickshaw (a 3 wheeler, motorized cart of sorts where 2 people sit in the back and the driver is in the front) the meter starts at 14 rupees and then goes up by 1 rupee for each km (1 Cdn dollar = about 35 rupees). So this is quite affordable for getting around by our standards. The key is to know how to ask where you need to go, and when the driver shakes his head (refusing to take you there) just to walk off and approach another...this happens to us a few times. I’m feeling very out of my element but Chiara presses on until we get a nod and get in.

One small detail...you need to be able to communicate in Hindi - or I guess you can gesture etc. but at the same time you will probably get ripped off if you’re an obvious foreigner. Then there is the traffic that I mentioned earlier. We’re driving within centimetres of other vehicles and this is NORMAL.


I manage to take a photo of the rickshaws and scooters in front of us, before we weave in between to pass them.


One of the main intersections where the traffic actually stops for a red light!


I am a total magnet for the street people and kids (being an obvious foreigner). We stop at an intersection and there are kids approaching all of the vehicles asking for money. I have a relentless little girl poking my leg and then gesturing for food. This is tough to see but I’m told not to give her any money. She runs off as soon as traffic begins to move and I wonder how it is that she doesn’t get run over.

Electricity is another mystery here...much to my surprise all of sudden my ceiling fan shuts off and my laptop is running on battery...when I ask about this I’m told that it’s common practice for the electricity to shut off for an hour or longer during the day especially as they approach their summer months (April/May). I’m recalling all the generators outside the shops we just visited and realize that the generators kick in when electricity shuts off. No such luck with my ceiling fan though and it’s hot!!

Day 8

I’ve met nearly everyone who lives as part of the ICPE mission here in India. Fritz and Diana are the directors, and then there are a few families with young kids, as well as a number of single men and women.


Diana welcoming the newest member to the ICPE mission community.


Everyone lives within a couple minutes walk and the house seems to be the hub of all activity. I love my neighbours (a family with 4 kids). The kids come by my room a lot to skip rope and just to hang out. Yesterday I went over to their home for coffee. Everyone is really friendly and I’m enjoying the sense of community whether we’re having a meal or walking to the store or just doing chores around the property (dusting and sweeping seem to be top chores since there is so much dust here!!). I love being involved in the day to day life here as much as I can...and I am in love with the food. I found out that Rani is deaf and we have figured out a way to communicate with relative ease. I don’t know how we do it actually cause even though she reads lips, it’s only in her language – not English. We can’t write to each other either, cause she can’t read English. We point, gesture, and seem to have figured out a system. I’m quite pleased cause she is starting to show me how she cooks some of my favourite dishes and I’m taking pictures and lots of notes!

 
 
Rani is cooking up something yummy in the kitchen. The perfect chapati and a pea and cottage cheese dish....mmmm. We then play cards amongst diving bats on the patio!


Day 11

I’m venturing on my own from the house a bit more now. I am walking a lot to check out different shops mostly for food ingredients for some dishes I’d like to make. It’s taking some getting used to that there isn’t one store that will have everything. I’m looking for ingredients to make salsa, guacamole, and basil pesto. Today, Iggy my neighbour took me to various shops. It ended up being a two hour walk which I loved, but mental note: do not wear flip flops on these long adventures. First of all, the sidewalks are not at all what I’m used to. The curbs are super high, the paving stones are very uneven , there are holes in the sidewalk and there is also garbage in the streets. So not only are the flip flops uncomfortable on this terrain but my feet are also dusty and filthy by the time we get back. But I’m very glad to know where all the little grocery shops are to make my recipes!! The parmesan cheese was the toughest to find.

 
The reason why it's good to wear good walking shoes and always, always watch where you are walking!
 
A couple random photos I took while driving around town.


Day 15

I’m still not used to having a maid clean my room and make my meals and coffee. Of course I’m not complaining but it’s still such a novelty for me when Rani rings the bell downstairs when my coffee is ready or when she comes knocking on my door to come and clean my room. Though it still feels a bit weird I know this is her job so I give her a big smile and gesture a ‘thank you’ each time. I come downstairs and see that my neighbours (the kids) are just about to leave for school. The boy walks to school by himself, but the girls get a ride on the scooter from their dad. Their school is further and it’s dangerous to cross the street. Speaking of dangerous...I’m shocked to realize that all 3 girls sit on the scooter with their dad. The second shock is to realize that only the driver wears the helmet – not the passengers. I’ve seen this on the streets out and about so obviously this is normal around here!


My neighbour Joshua climbing a coconut tree.

Off to get a ride to school!


Day 19

Matthew (one of the ICPE members) takes Tom (another visitor from England) and I to the national park just outside of Bangalore today. There is a great big zoo there and we go on a “safari” in this bus that feels like a giant cage. The tour guides attract to Tom and I immediately as we are the only obvious foreigners and Matthew warns us that they will expect to get a tip from us. Tom and I hardly have a chance to take pictures with our cameras because the tour guides take our cameras at each stop to do this “service” for us. The ride is bumpy, Matthew and Tom make me laugh as they bounce around in the seat behind me. It’s taking impeccable timing to take a picture of them without it being blurry. My favourite part is seeing the White Tiger. It is a giant creature and looks so calm just a few meters away from us but I am incredibly happy to be inside the caged bus. The other cool sighting is seeing a kitty cat inside the alligator enclosure...both the cat and the alligators are sleeping and I’m wondering if this is a bad mistake or if they actually co-exist together.

 
 
Our visit at the national park zoo - beautiful animals, interesting tour guides!


Day 21

Today I join the ICPE mission on their regular visit to the old age home. We walk together as a group for about 10 minutes til we reach the place. After a short meeting we partner off and go walk around to visit with the residents. They are happy to see us, and we stop to chat with them and also pray for/with those who wish. This seems to be the highlight of their day. I’m a little challenged by the language because most of the residents speak only Tamil or Kannada or Hindi. I am partnered up with a woman who has no problem finding a common language with any of the people we visit. She holds their hands and chats or prays with them while I can only participate by smiling and observing. Their eyes say so much. How I wish I could communicate with them!! But this is a great opportunity for me to see another part of the work that the ICPE mission does here and what a difference it makes to the people they encounter.

 
Visiting with a resident before she gets her teeth checked and then meeting up with everyone to wrap up

The view of one of the hallways at the old age home.


The next undertaking for the India ICPE community is the School of Mission due to start in August 2010. I’ve met several people here in India but also in Vancouver, who have attended the School of Mission either in India or in different ICPE communities, and they were all deeply touched and enriched by their experience. Each school is set in vibrant international environment and the schedule includes prayer, liturgy, lectures, small groups, team work, fun and fellowship. I am told that anyone who is interested in knowing more can inquire at schoolmission2010@gmail.com and/or visit: www.icpe.org

Departure

I’m leaving today. The time here has flown by. I have mixed feelings about leaving – I’ve grown very fond of everyone here and especially the sense of inner peace that seems contagious around here!! I’ve also grown very fond of the cuisine (especially the part where it gets cooked for me!!), and I feel like it will take a lot of effort to recreate these dishes at home, but I’ll give it my best shot. I got my book full of recipes and camera full of step-by-step techniques!

It’s funny that I can now say “I’ve been to India” but I feel – actually, I KNOW, that I have experienced only a fraction of what this country is all about. But while my experience and understanding of India’s culture and people is very personal and limited, it was more than I could have ever asked for. It has also given me a deeper appreciation for all that I have, intrigued me enough that I want to know more, and it has re-affirmed that without a doubt, no matter what continent or culture – we are all connected.

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